TCS Daily

On Leon Kass and Bioethics

By James Q. Wilson - March 17, 2005 12:00 AM

There have been criticisms of Leon Kass and his chairmanship of the President's Council on Bioethics from several quarters. Some people think he opposes medical therapies, others that he tolerates abortion, and still others that he chairs a council that is of one mind.

I have served on that Council since it was created and I know the criticisms are wrong, especially the one that appeared this week in TCS by Iain Murray that claims that Kass has denied the Council "procedural justice." The Council is deeply divided on the central moral questions about bioethical research, just as the country is divided. Some members favor letting bioscience do whatever seems scientifically justified, others want no harm to befall any fertilized egg, and still others think an embryo warrants moral respect but not complete protection. Some believe that medicine should be allowed to enhance the human being, others argue that enhancement beyond curing illnesses imposes risks.

Throughout the Council's debates, all of these arguments have been presented with great clarity and skill. I have served on several national commissions and chaired a couple of them, and so I bring some perspective to the matter. I have never encountered a more fair-minded chairman than Kass nor a Council composed of so many truly gifted (though philosophically divided) Council members.

Our initial report on human cloning had a majority opinion and several minority views. Each of the latter was defended in a thoughtful dissent. The vote on the central issue (therapeutic cloning) was ten to seven, and of the ten in the majority some favored banning it altogether and some wanted only a moratorium until regulatory issues had been settled. The seven dissenters ranged from doctors who wanted to get on with the work through philosophers who favored getting on with it, but only up to certain limits.

Try to think of another presidential council that has ever reflected such a wide range of views and expressed them with such clarity. Typically, a presidential body gets its marching orders from the White House and is composed of people whom one can predict will respond to those expectations. By contrast, President George W. Bush appointed a council that he knew in advance was divided and he issued no marching orders.

Some of our reports, such as the one on Reproduction and Responsibility, were unanimously adopted but only after lengthy negotiations about the text and with the addition of eight separate personal statements that highlight, argue against, or modify particular parts of the report.

Our newest report that will be released in early April will also reflect months of intense discussion, many amendments and clarifications, and a deeply felt tension about the apparent gap between what may be scientifically possible and what might by ethically questionable.

This Council, unlike others that have dealt with bioethical issues, is keenly aware that science and ethics are inextricably linked. The whole Council had no trouble condemning the creation of new humans by cloning, but after that agreement struggled with our many disagreements. To say that the Council lacks "procedural justice" is wholly and wildly unfair.

It is especially unfair to say that Kass suffers from a conflict of interest. The charge seems to rest on a press account that Kass will work with a writer to publish some new arguments in a respectable journal. This criticism is akin to demanding that judges never give speeches or write articles because somehow their independence will be jeopardized. If one employed that argument when one was selecting a chairman, one would have to recruit a philosophical eunuch who had managed to keep all thoughts to himself. But who would hire such a cipher? (All right, there is Justice David Souter, but apart from him . . .?)

There is literally no truth in the argument that Kass's own views were "more likely to get a hearing than those of other well-qualified bioethicists." People who make these charges should read the verbatim transcripts of every meeting of the Council, transcripts that are published on the Council's web site. Do that and then tell me that Kass's views get a better hearing than those of Michael Gazzaniga, Janet Rowley, Robert George, Daniel Foster, or Michael Sandel (to name but a few members).

If you are looking for procedural justice, you will find it in this Council.

James Q. Wilson is professor emeritus at UCLA's Anderson School of Management and a member of the President's Council on Bioethics.



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